How does the BBC select its expert academic commentators?

The Commons Select Committee on Business, Innovation & Skills is currently looking at the emerging shape of work in modern Britain. As someone interested in skills and learning, I am keeping an eye on their inquiry, and am looking forward to its report. Their work was featured this morning on the BBC’s flagship radio news programme Today, which interviewed the Committee chair and an expert commentator by the name of Jeremy Baker.


The interview with Baker created something of a Twitter storm. Introduced as ‘a retail analyst and affiliate professor at ESCP Europe Business School’, Baker proceeded to harp on about the notion of employment rights for entry-level workers, including trainees, which he repeatedly derided as ‘French’ and ‘middle class’.

Needless to say, Baker’s ideas were promptly rejected by Iain Wright, MP, who chairs the Select Committee. But given the rather peculiar nature of his comments, it seems reasonable to put the question: who is Jeffrey Baker, and what is his expertise? I did a bit of internet searching, and the results were mildly revealing.

First, the ESCP itself. ECSP is a private higher education institution, active in and recognised by a number of European states, with its origins in Paris. It enjoys a good reputation, and achieves well in international rankings of business schools.

The ESCP website lists Baker as an ‘affiliate professor’. What this means depends on the institution and individual; often, it is an appointment that is approved at departmental level, for someone whom the department wishes to contribute teaching or research.

The ESCP website tells us very little about Baker’s expertise. The one publication it mentions is his book Tolstoy’s Bicycle, described as ‘a creative look at career paths’, but which seems to be a popular compendium of high achievers and their ages, published in 1982. His current research is not listed, nor are his publications. A search on Google Scholar didn’t shed any further light on his expertise.

I have no idea whether the Today programme tried elsewhere and was turned down, or whether Baker or the ESCP put his name forward. But if you want an up-to-date expert on developments in the contemporary labour market, Baker doesn’t seem an obvious first choice.

Perhaps someone chuntering on about the French makes for good radio. But for those of us attempting to promote ideas of research informed policy, this morning’s interview was a step back.

The striking success of the German dual system


An apprentice addressing strikers in Cologne

There’s a Warnstreik on today, and Cologne is full of striking Kindergarten teachers, social workers, firefighters, health workers and tram drivers. It’s all part of the regular round of negotiations over pay and conditions in the public services, with the union Verdi and the employers engaging in what may or may not be a tactical stand-off.

With the tram service cancelled, I’ve been working at home. At half past eleven, I thought I’d pop along to Heumarkt to buy an espresso and take a look at the union rally, which was large and good-natured. There was a small police presence down by the Rhein, with none of the forcible ‘kettling’ that you tend to see in Britain.

While most of the strikers were clearly people who had spent some time in their jobs, I was struck by the number of apprentices who were there, one of whom was invited to speak from the platform. He described the strike as important for Azubis (Auszubildende) not simply in terms of their pay but also the quality of their training, which he claimed was jeopardized by the employers’ refusal to negotiate.

I’ve a couple of comments to make on this. First, the union doesn’t just recruit apprentices but went out of its way to ensure that their voice was heard. Second, apprentices clearly feel themselves to be a part of their workforce, and they identify strongly with the service that they provide. Both of these factors – as well as their legal status as employees – help to shape their identity as members of an occupational group, in it for the long term.

A new skills agenda for Europe – or a drearily familiar shopping list?

The European Commission prearing to publish a position paper entitled A New Skills Agenda for Europe. Due to appear in late May, the paper is concerned with ‘promoting skills’, including the mutual recognition of qualifications, supporting vocational training and higher education, and ‘reaping the full potential of digital jobs’.

Will the content live up to its title – that is, will it really be ‘new’? Judging by the minutes of the Education Council, much of it will be familiar stuff. It will focus entirely on skills supply, with little or no discussion of how to raise the demand for and utilisation of those skills. Employability will be everything; don’t expect any creative thinking about skills for other areas of life. There could be a brief nod in the direction of equity and inclusion, and there will certainly be much rhetorical excitement about the growth potential of the digital economy.

Finally, because responsibility for skills lies largely with member states, several of whom are worried about ‘competency creep’ in the field of education policy, the Commission will largely confine itself to urging other people to do things, few of which will be innovative. So far, then, so familiar.

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Minutes of the European Council, 24 February 2016

Possibly there will be one new feature, compared with past policy papers on skills. The New Skills Agenda is highly likely to refer to the skills and the integration of refugees. Germany’s experience in the last year suggests that refugee integration into the labour market is proving slower than anticipated, partly because of language difficulties, but also because fewer refugees than anticipated hold recognised qualifications.

If my analysis is right, the energy has drained out of the ‘social Europe’project that was embodied during the 1980s by Jacques Delors. But neither are the largely Right or Centre-Right figures who dominate today’s Commission capable of producing creative and imaginative approaches to the skills and knowledge of Europe’s population, whether established or new. I find it hard to see the new paper making much of a splash, but I’d be delighted to be proved wrong when it is published in May.


The curious absence of older workers from the equity and skills agenda

One of the things I find admirable in current Scottish policy thinking is that skills policies are broadly aligned with policies for equalities and poverty reduction. Quite how this works out in practice is of course another – very difficult – matteer. But at least the general intention of marrying skills development with equity is clear and unambiguous.

There is, though, a lingering gap in the thinking when it comes to age and ageism. I took a quick look at the 2010 ‘refresh’ of Skills for Scotland, the Scottish Government’s main policy document for the area. This key text barely mentions skills and adult workers, and presents no strategic thinking on the older workforce.

In 63 pages, the word adult is used eleven times; seven of those refer to adult literacy and numeracy, and ESOL, unemployed career guidance, offenders and local council services get one mention each. There is one reference to older workers, in the appendix.


Age distribution of Scotland’s population in the 2011 census

Scotland’s population profile is an aging one. As in so many European countries but in contrast to England, Scottish society is characterised by low birth rates and relatively low rates of immigration.This has obvious implications for the size and shape of Scotland’s working age population, so the absence of any serious thinking about the upskilling and reskilling of older workers is striking.

Debating adult learning in the House of Lords


Baroness Sharp, copyright Policy Connect

The House of Lords is an anachronistic piece of our constitution, a second chamber that represents two profoundly undemocratic principles: inherited power, and appointment by the government of the day. So I hope that its days are numbered, but in the meantime it’s the only second chamber we have. And it is discussing adult learning.

First, Baroness Uddin has asked to discuss English for Speakers of other Languages (ESOL). This follows the Prime Minister’s announcement that the government is providing £20 millions for migrant women to learn English as a way of preventing terrorism. This is the same government that last July sliced the ESOL budget by £45 millions.

Manzila Pola Uddin, formerly a Labour politician, has a strong track record of involvement in adult education and training, and she has helped promote skills training for Asian women. Sadly, she was caught up in the public scandal over MPs’ expenses, in a way that seriously damaged her credibility.  But I’m inclined to think that she knows what she is talking about, and that her views on our government’s slippery track record on English for Speakers of Other Languages should be listened to.

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Next, Baroness Sharp is debating the role of adult education and lifelong learning in strengthening the UK economy. Formerly the Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson in the Lords on further and higher education, Margaret Sharp chaired the 2011 Independent Inquiry into Colleges in Their Communities, sponsored by NIACE, the Association of Colleges and the 157 Group. She is also an active member of the Lords’ Select Committee on Social Mobility, which is due to report shortly.

Adult learning hasn’t exactly been a priority for their Lordships in recent years. But here we are – two debates in a single morning. I’ve just been asked to brief one of the members of the Lords, and it will be interesting to see whether any of my suggestions get an airing. More importantly, while they are unlikely to produce much in the way of direct change in government policy, Lords debates provide an opportunity to shape the wider climate of opinion, and set the longer term direction of travel.


Training provision in the Third Sector: the case of Age UK

Age UK is a highly respected voluntary organisation, which lobbies and campaigns on behalf of older people.It also provides services such as befriending, information and advice, runs a radio station, promotes volunteering, and funds research. To quote its own annual report, Age UK is “dedicated to helping people love later life”.

As part of that aim, Age UK provides quite a wide range of education and training. One of its core aims, according to its articles of association, is that of ‘advancing education’, with a view to building the capacities of older adults and improving the skills and knowledge of those who provide services.

As well as helping older adults learn new skills (from self-care to Skype), Age UK offers training services to employers such as health service and social care bodies, and it also runs its own programmes, including apprenticeship schemes and updating courses for professionals.

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From Age UK’s annual report for 2014

This adds up to quite a sizeable operation. In 2014, for example, Age UK estimated that it raised over £10 millions through its training activities – equivalent to almost a quarter of the £46 millions that it raised from its much more familiar voluntary activities. In 2014 it had some 3,500 registered learners, of whom two-thirds were pursuing apprenticeships.

This is an impressive level of activy, confirming that third sector organisations like Age UK are important players in our increasingly flexible market for training and adult learning.  But according to the government inspectorate, the quality of Age UK’s training and education is not what it should be.

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Age UK’s most recent Ofsted report covers an inspection that took place last November. The inspectors reported many failings that included low completion rates, widespread variations in attendance rates, a failure to challenge learners, poor monitoring of progress, patchy feedback, and, not surprisingly, poor overall management and leadership. They concluded that ‘This is an inadequate provider’.

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One of the more damning findings

In fairness, some of the judgements could apply elsewhere. In a high-stakes assement regime, it is probably common to find – as the report notes – that ‘many trainers focus overly on assessment criteria and not enough on helping learners develop good vocational work skills’.

Many colleges and a growing number of universities could similarly be described as suffering ‘rapid turnover of training instructors and delays in the recruitment of replacements with the appropriate skills’, leading to ‘a decline in teaching standards’.

And Age UK is certainly not the only provider where ‘Reports from managers to supervisory boards focus too heavily on financial targets and reports from external awarding bodies, and not enough on the quality of provision’.

Ofted also recognised some strengths, including good pastoral care and strong links to the labour market. Overall, though, the report raises significant concerns over the quality of training in one of our largest voluntary organisations whose prime concern is improving the quality of later life.

Like a number of other charities, Age UK has handed responsibility for much of its training activities to a semi-commercial trading arm, Age UK (Trading) CIC. I can’t help wondering whether keeping training at arm’s length in this way, while financially advantageous, has led to a weakening of accountability and diluted the focus on Age UK’s main aims.

The charity has said that it will address the concerns raised by Ofsted, but perhaps it also needs to look at the factors that created the problems in the first place. Meanwhile, if the UK is to move still further in the direction of a marketised system of adult skills development, some way has to be found of ensuring that learners do not lose out as a result of poor quality provision.


Skills in a coastal community – the relentless tide of supply side thinking

As a citizen and ratepaper I have just responded to my local council’s consultation for its draft corporate plan. Called Towards 2030, the plan is intended to provide the overarching framework for the wide range of activities that Scarborough Borough Council undertakes on behalf of its population of just over 100,000 people.

At the moment, the Council is interested in our response to the four broad, high-level aims that it proposes to pursue. A cynic would say these are ‘apple pie’ statements, which focus on people, place, prosperity and the Council itself – all four lined up under the ambitious vision of ‘a prosperous Borough, with a high quality of life for all’.

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I had plenty to say about all this, but what struck me was how far the section on prosperity focused on education and skills.This includes turning the Borough into ‘the most highly skilled coastal community by 2030’, a target that I would bet my coffin will never be met (and will probably be quietly forgotten by 2020).

Coastal communities across Britain are generally characterised by low skills levels, and their economies are often characterised by a heavy reliance on low wage and precarious forms of employment. As a result, government has announced a series of initiatives to help regenerate coastal areas, with a major focus on training places and apprenticeships.

All this is of course fine. The problem, though, is that improving the skills and aspirations of young people (and adult workers) may well be highly desirable, but it will not create a highly skilled population. Far more probably, well-educated and highly-motivated workers will immediately move elsewhere to realise their ambitions and use their skills – as indeed they already do from coastal towns like Whitby, Scarborough and Filey.

Scarborough Borough Council is hardly alone in focussing on skills supply as the panacea for all ills. I can see why local government might look at local labour markets and decide that the solution to low skills is to train and educate the young. And the Council has done well in some respects, for example in securing the provision of a higher education campus in the Borough, with Coventry University offering a broad range of degrees.

The problem is that to retain skilled and motivated workers means raising the demand for skills, by promoting types of employment that will use and reward those skills. And in turn that means interventions of some sort to help reshape the local economy and move it up the value chain. These interventions, whether government-led or business-led, will inevitably be of a kind that so far local and devolved governments in the UK have been most reluctant to pursue.



Skills and the growing number of older workers


I recently attended a European research conference on the education and learning of older adults. It was held in the charming southern Swedish city of Jönköping, and was attended by a decent network of researchers who function well together. I’ve been to previous meetings of this group and always found them stimulating.

I presented on the role of education and skills in supporting older workers. My argument was that demographic aging poses a much wider set of challenges to workplaces than is usually supposed; that older workers should be seen as part of the solution to these challenges and not just as their cause; and that the challenges and solutions were multi-dimensional, involving a wide range of actors, so that the government ministry for education may well be a relatively minor actor. In these circumstances those who support learning for older workers will need to build coalitions and partnerships outside the traditional educational arena.

Since then, the Department for Work and Pensions has just published an analysis of older workers that reinforces my view of the importance of this topic. Drawing on the Labour Force Survey, the DWP report shows that the employment rate for older workers is rising sharply. In the last thirty years in Britain:

  • the employment rate for 50-64 year olds rose by 14.2%, from 55.4% to 69.6%;
  • the employment rate for workers aged 65 or over has doubled, rising from 4.9% to 10.2%
  • the largest increases have been for women workers aged 60-64 and 55-59

This growth has been faster for older women workers than men, producing much greater convergence between the two in terms of their employment rate (though not necessarily in their experience of work or the rewards they receive).

And the growth in employment for the over-65s began in the early 2000s and has continued until the present. This suggests that financial hardship is not the principal driver of the turn to work. Those who reached state pensionable age in the early 2000s still included significant numbers with decent occupational pensions; and the New Labour government adopted a number of measures at this time to reduce pensioner poverty, including rises in the basic state pension.

Of course, some older workers are looking to make ends meet still, and their numbers may increase with the tightening squeeze on welfare. But more likely explanations are (a) the expanding number of older adults as the baby boomers reach their sixties; (b) the relatively good health of people who reach the state pension age; (c) a slow change in attitudes among at least some employers who are more willing to take on older workers; (d) the growth in precarious job contracts such as zero hours arrangements, which may cause less difficulty to people who can also draw on pensions; and (e) people’s desire to maintain a relatively high consumption lifestyle.
What does all this mean for skills and education? Here we enter the realms of speculation, albeit that we do have some evidence. First, the growing number of older workers is creating new demands for upskilling and other forms of training, which employers will need to take on board.

Second, a number of older workers will be well able to fund their own learning, at least partly; and indeed for some, the more commercialised forms of learning (study tours, heritage cruises, and so on) will be part of the lifestyle that they are working to maintain.

Third, human resource managers – including trainers – will need to take an increasingly multi-generational workforce into account, with generational differences being superimposed on other factors such as gender and ethnicity. This means planning development and training activities that meet the needs of mixed age groups and balance the different learning styles and preferences of different cohorts, from recent school-leavers to those over state pension age.

There are important roles here for adult learning providers, but not necessarily as instructors – or not just as instructors. There are other roles as brokers, partners and advocates to be filled, working alongside trade unions and employers and trainers. It is, though, unlikely that providers will play much of a role if their expertise is limited to working with young adults and providing a second chance of improving basic skills, important though these are.

And finally there is a role for government, if it has the political will to intervene, in helping to secure equity. I mentioned above the question of gender and workforce participation among older women workers; their location in and rewards from the labour market will only match those of men if there are measures in place to avoid discrimination and provide targeted skills. The same goes for ethnicity and – with knobs on – for dis/ability, particularly as those older workers who are working because they need the money will also be those with the lowest savings, poorest health and the fewest skills.

Four scenarios for the future of adult education in Britain



There is a pervasive sense of crisis around British adult education. Public funding for adult learning has been slashed, and on this issue at least there are few differences between Scotland, England and Wales. And the decline began well before the Coalition came to power, let alone before George Osborne announced his plans for massive savings from education and training: Ruth Kelly was cutting adult education in 2006.

But at least New Labour had provided new funding for adult learning in the first place, and supported important new initiatives, even if they did pull back later. Now, though, there is little left to cut.

Local councils in England provide minimal adult education, with a heavy focus on basic skills provision; the picture is more variable in Scotland, where some councils maintain most of their adult provision while others have all but withdrawn. Colleges in all three British nations have been told to reduce part-time adult provision and focus on school-leavers and full-time provision. Only a dozen universities still have a department or centre for adult education.

According to Caroline Lucas*, Member of Parliament for Brighton and Hove, “It’s no exaggeration to say that the very existence of adult education is in jeopardy”. I think she exaggerates, but it is true to say that public provision has been slashed, and what is left is likely to be cut further.

At the same time, none of the pressures that created the debate around lifelong learning have gone away, so at some stage in the future there will be new debates, though probably the terms will have changed. And so will the context: many people still want to learn, and quite a few have to learn, regardless of what the government provides. What, then, is the most likely future?

What follows is speculative, less an attempt to predict the future than to think through the possibilities. One of these is that the various campaigns to save adult learning will succeed, that policy-makers will rediscover their love for lifelong learning, and that we will see a return to the levels of funding that existing under the first Blair government. We have strong collective voices for the sector in many European countries, including England and Wales, but not in Northern Ireland where the Assembly shut down the main independent voices.

This, though, has to be a strategy for the long haul. Winning over the policy-makers will take organisation, persistence and patience. After all, it was Labour’s Alan Johnston who derided adult learners as Pilates addicts, Labour’s John Denham who jeered at subsidies for ‘holiday Spanish’. And it will also require a broad coalition of influential allies, just as the older movement for public adult education relied on the support of the trade unions, co-operatives, women’s institutes and churches.

The second possibility is that a strong voluntary adult education movement will emerge and replace part at least of the state sector. The signs here are rather encouraging: the University of the Third Age movement appears to be thriving, and its local associations manage to run a lively programme of classes and events over the whole UK with little or no support from the state. If older adults can build a national self-help movement, why shouldn’t other groups do so?

I’m a great admirer of the U3As, but they do have limits. As a social capital researcher it comes as no surprise to me that its membership largely comprises the like-minded. Not only are they mostly well-educated and drawn from comfortable middle class occupations; the movement is also overwhelmingly white. The risk, then, is that other groups are simply ‘frozen out’ – or indeed exclude themselves – from the U3A.

And while older people have managed to created a sustainable network-type association, other interest groups don’t seem to have done so. There may be sudden collective rushes to the internet when some issue or other comes to the top of the political agenda, but there isn’t much sign of any more sustained and organised framework for supporting collective learning.

A third scenario is privatization. De facto, this is more or less what is happening anyway in the UK – and not just in the UK. The main European research journal on adult learning is putting together a special issue on marketisation and commodification. Eila Heikkila, in her recent overview of adult learning in Finland, noted that the reduction in public funding had helped to create a much more competitive sector, where providers had an interest in differentiating their offer, and thus widening learner choice. Policy-makers may well find this an attractive message.

The difficulty with this scenario is that a market-led system will almost certainly face massive quality problems, at least at its margins, and will gear provision towards profitability rather than any wider social or economic need. At the very least, then, the state is likely to seek at least a minimal role in securing training for groups such as school-leavers or the unemployed, in whom there is a wider political interest. Beyond that, the market will certainly meet the needs of many adult learners, these will be the relatively affluent and well-educated. It probably won’t reach many of the 25 % of EU adults who have completed no formal education beyond lower secondary education.

My fourth scenario is a hybrid future. Public adult learning will continue, but it will adapt and change, particularly through the adoption of digital and mobile technologies. This implies a weaker role for local face-to-face providers, who will increasingly concentrate on those whom new technologies find ‘hard-to-reach’: migrants, refugees, the long-term unemployed, learners with special needs. Public providers will forge partnerships with voluntary and commercial providers, particularly in areas such as workplace learning. While voluntary providers will develop programmes for specific interest groups, commercial providers will sell places on study tours, heritage weekends, bespoke professional qualifications, and so on.

Of these, I find the hybrid model most likely. It will involve some continuing public provision with sporadic attempts at government steering, but will be increasingly dispersed and at least partially privatised. I find it difficult to see how this rather fragmentary and often competitive world will produce anything like a social movement approach, but perhaps that is slightly pessimistic? On the other hand, while I don’t see much sign of an emerging social movement in the real world, there is nothing to stop us taking the long view, and trying to build one.

* I need to declare an interest: I am a member of the Green Party, which Caroline Lucas represents

Few winners, plenty of losers: policy failure in lifelong learning

The Government has finally published the results of its 2010 National Adult Learning Survey. Why it was not published last year is itself a story, but the more important issue is that the survey shows a huge decline in participation in adult learning. The headline is that overall participation fell by 11% from the level of 80% recorded in 2005. Non-formal learning, or courses not leading to a qualification, saw a collapse of 17%; and informal (self-directed) learning saw a drop of 13%. 

As ever, deep inequalities lurk behind the headlines. The age gradient has risen, with much sharper declines in participation among older adults. The gap between 20-29 year-olds and people in their sixties has risen, as has the gap between the 20-29-year-olds and people aged over 70. In a system which was already geared towards youth, older adults have been further marginalised.

The education gradient has also become steeper. Participation fell by 7% among people with higher education qualifications; it fell by 11% among those with Level 2 qualifications, by 14% among those with Level 1 qualifications, and a whoppping 19% by those with no qualifications. This is quite remarkable, given that after the Leitch Review of 2006, Government policy under Labour and the Coalition was allegedly geared towards getting the least qualified to improve their skills and qualifications.

The social mobility gradient has become sharper as well. The drop in participation was 7% among those with at least one parent holding a university degree, and 12% for people whose parents had left education by the age of 16. Taken together with current changes in the taxation and benefits systems, this contradicts the claim that social mobility can be – as deputy prime minister Nick Clegg put it in 2011 – the Coalition’s ‘over-riding social policy objective’.

How can we explain this collapse in lifelong learning? The report suggests that the 2005 figures were inflated by a temporary surge in introductory computer training; this is possible but unlikely, as the result of introductory computer training is generally an increased need for less basic training. The report also claims that ‘employers are training fewer employees’ because of the recession. This sounds plausible until you realise that there is absolutely no evidence for this claim. On the contrary – Alan Felstead and Francis Green have shown that training activity has continued much as usual.

Finally, the report briefly alludes to policy changes, which brought about a critical breakdown in public sector provision. Essentially, Government decided to discourage short courses and courses not leading to qualifications, and prioritise courses leading to Level 2 qualifications. These are the results of policies adopted in 2007, on Labour’s watch (hang your heads in shame, John Denham and Bill Rammell). The Coalition has continued them in England, and now the SNP is taking Scotland down the same path.

The consequences do not need labouring. First, we are heading straight for greater educational and social inequality; second, social mobility will decline as a direct result; and third, any claims about ‘active aging’ must be measured against the negative effects of reduced opportunities for third age learning.

The NALS report is at:

Felstead and his colleagues’ reports on training in the recession are at: